Opinion: Moderates at risk in GOP

Six months into the 113th Congress, the Republican Party has doubled down on the limited identity it developed in the 112th. The party that put everything into stopping President Obama’s reelection is now intent on damaging his legacy and continuing to obstruct the Democratic majority’s agenda in the Senate.

There is also pressure to up the ante on the same political bet the GOP lost when Obama won a second term.

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Last week, several conservative groups asked the GOP majority in the House to agree to enforce the “Hastert Rule,” named for former Speaker Denny Hastert (R-Ill.), which requires that Republicans only pass legislation supported by a majority of their conference.

If adopted, the Hastert Rule will prohibit Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) from working with Democrats and increase political polarization in Congress. Its advocates clearly see it as a means to block an immigration reform deal.

The crippling political dynamic was on display last week in the overwhelming vote by the House GOP to end funding of Obama’s executive order which stopped deportations of young people whose parents broke the law when they brought them into the United States as children. The vote will have no practical effect and no political impact except to pander to anti-immigrant forces and further alienate Latino voters.

The missing link in Republican politics these days is the moderate Republican. There is no need to talk about liberal Republicans. They are extinct. Moderate Republicans are barely hanging on. Former Sen. Bob Dole (Kan.), a moderate Republican, recently said he doubts if he or former President Reagan could win election in today’s extreme, southern-based GOP.

Historically, most Republican moderates came from the northeast. But in the current 113th Congress, there is not a single Republican in any of the 21 House seats from New England (Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts). All of those states, except for Maine, now have Democratic governors.

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who was elected as an independent in 2010 after a long career as a Congressional Republican, announced last month he was switching to the Democrats. Party activists treat New Jersey’s popular Gov. Chris Christie as a traitor. His sin was thanking Obama for federal help after a hurricane.

Among other Republicans, former Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe quit Congress out of frustration with its polarized politics. Former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown found it impossible to defend today’s brand of Republican extremism when he ran for a full term in 2012.

Of the two GOP senators from New England, only one has a voting record in keeping with a true moderate — Susan Collins of Maine.

The other is freshman conservative Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), who is being hammered by the right for supporting immigration reform.

In a statement on her group’s website, Eagle Forum President Phyllis Schlafly declared: “Ayotte betrayed every conservative who supported her when she announced her support for this shameful bill  …  she has apparently been spending too much time with serial Establishment election losers like Karl Rove…”

The same focus on conservative orthodoxy instead of expanding the party is on display in the special election in Massachusetts to fill John Kerry’s Senate seat. Polls show the Republican candidate, Gabriel Gomez, trailing by only 7 percentage points, 48 to 41. Gomez is a former U.S. Navy SEAL, Latino and politically moderate. His opponent, Democrat Ed Markey, is one of the most liberal members of the House.

But the Tea Party activists and major GOP contributors have been reluctant to back Gomez because he is a moderate and running against the odds in a blue state. Instead, the GOP focus is on reinstating the Hastert Rule.

With the Hastert Rule in effect, Boehner would not have had the votes to pass the spending cuts and tax increases that kept the country away from the fiscal cliff, no Hurricane Sandy aid package could have passed and the Violence Against Women Act would not have been reauthorized. 

David Frum, the former George W. Bush speechwriter, recently wrote that party orthodoxy requires all Republicans to pursue the “politics of total war” against the president. That GOP political strategy is damaging American political institutions, he concluded. And Frum warned: “Republicans also lose as those institutions degenerate.”

Where is the adult, GOP leader with the heart to defy the party’s right wing and act on that moderate message?

There is a long tradition of Northeastern moderate Republicans capable of taking a stand against the extremists. They include senators like New York’s Jacob Javits; New Hampshire’s Warren Rudman and Massachusetts’ Edward Brooke. In their day, these senators all played a leading role in Congress. Today they would not be welcome in the Republican Party.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.